Category Archives: Attitude

Guide to Motivation, Part 2: How do Project Managers Motivate Themselves?

Your team has someone else to attend to their motivation:
you have to do it yourself.

In my last blog, I talked about how you, as a project manager, can motivate your teams. But what about you? What gets you up in the mornings, with a spring in your step?

Of course, everything I wrote about motivating team members will apply equally to you: the needs for a purpose, to succeed, for relationships, and for respect. But I want to shift the focus a little bit to the way you set yourself up to be self-motivating. Because the difference between you, a good project manager, and your team is stark:

Your team has someone else to attend to their motivation:
you have to do it yourself.

To stay highly motivated you must attend to six important needs that are relevant to our work. Which of these needs are most important to you is something to think about. Most likely, the ones that come to the front of your mind will include those that you feel intuitively are not being as fully met as you would like. However, they are all important, so you should avoid attending to some at the cost of neglecting others completely.

Do Something Worthwhile

The first need we have to satisfy is to do things we believe in. Many project managers are in the happy position (compared to other workers) that we can pick and choose our assignments. It’s not just if you are a contractor; in-house project managers often have the chance to select what projects we put ourselves forward.

Even in the most commercially minded organisations, you will even have one or two credits with which you can decline an opportunity if you have good reasons to do so. As a project manager with management consultancy Deloitte, I declined two assignments (one a spectacularly good career opportunity) on the grounds of ethical preferences regarding the clients I worked with. Do it too often, and your reputation will suffer, but if you do it properly, it is better than working on something that feels wrong to you.

I’m a strong advocate that we when we do take on a project, we should make it the best we possibly can. Find the links to your own value set and look for ways that your project can contribute to what you consider important.

This will be, perhaps, the single most motivating insight. Just doing it for the money is rarely enough here. But, if the money is for something important to you, then make that link. Better still, how will your project further things you care about societally, environmentally, politically, commercially, technically, or personally?

Do Something Well

Doing something and completing it can give a sense of achievement, and we all have a need, to one degree or another, for that. But what you may find even more motivating is the pride in doing something well, or exceptionally well.

When we look at a job really well done, we feel good, and the sense of flow you get while focus every element of your being on doing that job well is immensely satisfying. For some people, the pride, and satisfaction come when others recognize their achievement. But you may not need that: you may feel good just knowing that you have done something good.

The anticipation and the immersion are key elements her and can apply to any element of the project management and leadership process, from preparing a plan, engaging stakeholders, to giving feedback to your team and reviewing a deliverable. Paying attention to the quality of everything you do is hugely exhilarating.

Feel in Control

Let’s start with the opposite end of the spectrum. When you feel out of control, it manifests as stress. Project managers are adept at exerting control over complex and uncertain environments, because this is what our discipline teaches us. But because of this, many project managers feel uncomfortable as control starts to slip.

The reality, of course, is that the project universe is vast and much of it, like stakeholder reactions, weather conditions and even technical outcomes, is out of our control. You will be at your most motivated when you turn your focus away from the things you cannot control, towards those you can.

You can control how you engage with stakeholders and how you respond to their reactions. You can control the mitigation and contingency plans you put in place to deal with adverse weather. And you can even control the scheduling, testing and contingency planning around technology development. Believe it or not, robust estimating, detailed planning, and active risk management all contribute to motivation.

One other thing that you can control is your attitude. There are three attitudes that will help you to stay positively motivated through adverse time:

  1. Gratitude for the things you have (while recognizing the challenges you face).
  2. Optimism towards the future (whilst recognizing the realities of the present).
  3. Flexibility in your thinking (which will allow you to recognise when to abandon your plans, if necessary, and find new solutions.

Feel Valued

Your project is not everything in your life. But if you let it become that, then it is easy to lose perspective and feel your motivation drain away in the face of adversity. So ensure that you remain connected to the other things you value in life; interests, people, activities.

We have a deep need to feel valued by other people. Your team has you to recognize their contributions and value their involvement. You should have your project sponsor to provide this for you… but there’s another issue. What if your project sponsor does not provide the support and endorsement you neee-d? What if they seem mysteriously hard to contact when the project hits a roadblock? (Sound familiar?)

Seek out a small number of trusted peers who can provide support and even counsel. These should be people who are at least as experienced and accomplished as you, who have a non-judgemental attitude and will value your ideas and support as much as you value theirs. It is said (and my experience supports it) that we are all as successful as the average of the people we associate with. Find a small group of successful project managers to share your thoughts with.

Work with Great People

The need that we all have for relationships – in and out of work – can be challenging for a leader who may feel a little isolated from your team. Find a way to balance your need to remain objective about the performance of team members, with your desire to integrate at a social level with them. My experience is that project managers are more adept at this balancing act than line managers – probably due to the fluid nature of projects, the lower sense of hierarchy, and the feeling of working together under a level of adversity.

What I have found helpful is to seek out the best collaborators for my project where I can. And, where I have had to accept the resources I have been allocated, to find the passion and talent within the people I have. I recommend you adopt an attitude of curiosity about your team members that searches for anything of interest, any talent, any insights and innovations that you can find.

Create opportunities for your project team to come together and share each others company in ways that are appropriate to the project, to the people, and to the culture within which you are operating. On great projects, it is usually the people you will remember, long after any other details.

Work for Your Future

Finally, you need to be a little selfish and look to your future. Not in a tunnel-vision way that obscures the present, but so that you can put what you are doing into the wider context of your career. Think about the opportunities your project offers to learn, develop, and gain experiences that can help you in the next step of your career.

As you do this, you will see new opportunities to shift the emphasis of what you are doing to bank new professional assets. But never take your eye off doing the very best you can, in the present. Today’s success is by far the greatest asset for investing in tomorrow’s opportunity.

But to make the best of tomorrow’s opportunities you do need to understand the ‘why’ of today’s success. Without a doubt, one the distinguishing features of many of the most successful people, in all fields, is their willingness to reflect on their experiences carefully. Taking time to process and understand our experiences, and to make new connections and distinctions is the principle root to move from being simply smart, to being wise.

As project manager, you know – intellectually – the importance of lessons learned reviews for your team and your organization. But often, the last person to really think about the meaning of those lessons is you. Again, you will conduct a good performance review for your team members, I hope. But who will do this for you? If it is not your sponsor, then make it your support group of peers. Or, if you don’t have that in place, then be sure to do it for yourself. Because you’re worth it.


This article was first published on the website on 14 October, 2015.

Dr Mike Clayton is the author of The Influence Agenda, published by Palgrave Macmillan –

His other books include ‘How to Manage and Great Project’, ‘Brilliant Project Leader’, and Powerhouse‘.

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Six Pieces fo Advice for Project Leaders

I was recently asked what advice I would offer to new (and experienced) project leaders.

1. Trust the process – things won’t always feel as though they are working out, but if the process is good – and the right one for the domain you are in – then remain open to adjustments, but fundamentally: ‘trust the process’.

2. Balance is everything, and in the context of project management, this is particularly so in the need to balance your attention to structure, systems, processes and control on the one hand, and getting the people side of projects right, focusing on motivation, inspiration and interpersonal relationships.  I refer to these sides as project management and project leadership but, in truth, it is all one discipline.

3. Everything you learn and do has value, so be an intellectual gannet and collect ideas and inspiration from everywhere.  Then integrate it all, to build creative solutions to the problems and challenges you encounter.

4. Hone you people skills and learn to focus on understanding people. To do this, the three greatest techniques to master are asking good questions, listening intently and becoming comfortable with silence.  Bringing these together with a voracious intellectual appetite – which I mentioned in my last answer, and that will give you the perception to recognise and understand things other people miss.

5. Harness your team.  The power of people is in their diversity, so create environments that allow different people to share ideas respectfully before leaping to solutions or decisions.

6. Things will sometimes get tough as a senior project management professional. So, my final tip is to build your personal resilience. Keep fit, eat well, enjoy a good social life, and make sure you get enough sleep.

More on all these topics in Brilliant Project Leader.

What is a Project Manager?

There are lots of definitions of a project available – of which my favourite conventional one is the Project Management Institute’s:

‘It’s a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result.’

At the start of How to Manage a Great Project, I decline to define projects, preferring instead to list typical features of a project, but then relent at the end of the book in the short ‘Learn the Lingo’ chapter, describing a project as:

‘a co-ordinated set of tasks, which together create a defined new product, process or service, within a constrained time or resource budget.’

So many organisations are now using project management to manage repeating tasks, that I think the ‘unique’ component has far less importance in the definition than it once did. Of course, we must also acknowledge the undesirable reality of many projects, so I also offer this tongue-in-cheek definition:

‘Project management is a race to complete a poorly defined thing by an artificial deadline, by co-ordinating a disparate bunch of people each of whom has their own agenda, prejudices and ideas about how to manage the chaos of a complex, novel and urgent endeavour, for which they will never be properly thanked.’

Sound familiar? It’s the same as the others above, only a bit different. Actually I offer seven desirable traits of good project management, before going on to define what is rarely defined elsewhere: a project manager.

My first definition, is by way of a cartoon, in which the plates represent the streams of work we need to keep on target and the balls represent the relationships we need to manage.

My next definition is a little more complimentary describing a project manager as a doer, an organiser, and a succeeder.

Now, between you and me, I did spend a while trying to be even more sophisticated, before I realised two things:

  1. I am not that good at being sophisticated
  2. How to Manage a Great Project is not the right book for that level of sophistication (phew)

I spent a while looking for evidence of patterns among the Big Five personality factors that characterised successful project managers.  I reached some weak conclusions only. So, if you are a project manager, I would welcome you completing the following poll, in the hope I can gather some data for a future blog.

Tick all of the statements that your friends and colleagues would say apply to you most of the time. I know that they all apply at some time, so please try to avoid ticking all of them.

In Tough Times, Project Management is Not Enough

In tough times, project management is not enough. People get scared and uncertain, and they need leadership to keep them motivated, confident and effective.

Who am I talking about?

Projects do more than inhabit an environment: they create one. They have a powerful effect on the people, procedures and interactions that surround them. The effects ripple outwards, so that when a project starts to go wrong, many people are affected: the project manager and the team, the project sponsor and the project steering group or board that oversees the project, the user groups and business owners, the suppliers, contractors and technical experts, and the stakeholders and bystanders.

So in tough times, “purple bus leadership” becomes essential.

Purple Bus Leadership

A project leader is able to inspire and motivate others to stay calm and contribute effectively in tough times, as well as manage them when they do. Think about two buses.

The Yellow Bus

People have to get onto the yellow bus to get where they have to go. It is well-maintained and safely driven. If it breaks down on the way, the passengers are confident that the driver will know what to do. But they cannot help but feel concerned about whether they chose the right bus, and whether it will be able to get them where they need to go.

The Purple Bus

People hear the driver of the purple bus talking about the destination, and they want to get on. They enjoy the journey and find it stimulating. They trust the driver and, if the bus breaks down, they all get out and want to help. They are confident that the driver is in control and they wait to be told what needs to be done.

Three Challenges in Tough Times

Project leaders face three challenges in tough times: resistance from people who have perceived and legitimate concerns, dealing with problems and adverse circumstances, and staying tough when you’d rather just quit.

Meeting Resistance

In times of change, resistance is inevitable. Dealing positively with that resistance is a great enough challenge at the best of times, but when you are under pressure, it can feel as if the whole world is against you.

Project leaders must understand the psychology of resistance and be able to diagnose the type of resistance that they encounter, understand why they are getting it, and have a toolbox of resources to help them engage with it constructively.

Although resistance can take many forms, it tends to sit at one of five levels, with most fundamental being: “I don’t understand why we need to change.” Here, the resistor is unaware of the external pressures for change and is therefore, quite reasonably, questioning why you are investing time, effort and resources in making a change at all. This is nothing more nor less than the old refrain: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

As we go down through the levels, the resistance gets hotter and more complex to handle. At this first level, you need to make the evidence of the need for change clear, finding the best way to represent it so that your resister can understand and internalise it. At the next level, you are going to have to work harder.

At level two, you are likely to hear something more like this: “I don’t understand why this change.” Now the resister gets the need for change, but fails to see how or why your project is the right response. As you deal with each layer, you are likely to find more beneath it. That’s why I call this the “Onion Model of Resistance”. Read more about this in The Handling Resistance Pocketbook.

Up against it

When something goes wrong, a knee jerk reaction is rarely effective and never wise. Instead, project leaders should deploy the SCOPE process to take control of their response to the problem.

The SCOPE process is a five step process for mentally taking control of a situation.

  • Stop
    Mentally and physically pause. Avoid rushing in.
  • Clarify
    Seek out all relevant facts that will help you understand the situation and its potential consequences.
  • Options
    Identify alternative options for your response, and evaluate each against potential consequences. Select your course of action.
  • Proceed
    Now act decisively.
  • Evaluate
    Review outcomes against your evaluation and, if you are not getting the results you expected, Stop – Clarify, select a new Option, …

Staying Tough

Perhaps the biggest challenge in tough times is to remain tough yourself. By “tough”, I don’t mean “hard” or “assertive”, but resilient. For me, resilience marks an important difference between a capable project leader and a great project leader. When things go wrong, resilient project leaders start to shine. An aura of confidence and optimism draws people towards them, inspires trust and confidence, and creates a willingness to follow.

Maintaining your resilience requires both mental and physical discipline. You cannot take the objective, partially detached perspective you will need if you are tired, mentally drained and physically exhausted. Adrenalin will help, but followers need to see calm at the centre of the storm, so here are some top tips for how to create the basis for resilience in the teeth of adversity.

  • Stay optimistic
    Look at the opportunities and resources you have available to you with a positive eye and keep your focus on what needs to be achieved. In the face of setbacks, acknowledge them, but don’t dwell on them. Learn the lesson and move on to the next thing.
  • Suppress the temptation for blame
    Whether aimed at yourself or others, blame serves no purpose. People know what they have done – the thing that matters is to overcome the problem and all blame will do is foster fearfulness at a time when you most need courage.
  • Be objective
    Look at the evidence of what has happened as objectively as you can avoid the temptation to let false, limiting or magical beliefs cloud your judgement. Acknowledge your beliefs about events, and then challenge them robustly, by testing them against all of the evidence, before you act on them. At stressful times we tend to personalise adversity, or focus on one causal factor – which may not be the most significant, if it is relevant at all.
  • Take care of yourself
    Be sure to make time for good quality food, sufficient exercise and plenty of rest, so that when a crisis hits, your batteries have reserves of energy. If the crisis continues, then make sure you recharge those batteries from time to time.

This essay is linked to Part 3 of Brilliant Project Leader by Mike Clayton.

Brilliant Project Leader

What the best project leaders know, do and say to get results, every time.

Brilliant Project Leader
Order here

“This has the ability to greatly enhance your effectiveness and capability.  It is a must read for all current or aspiring project leaders.”
Charles Vivian
Head of Programme and Project Leadership
North Highland, UK

Truth Decay

The truth is not a constant. Knowledge changes and you must change with it if you are to stay in control.

When I was a child, enchanted by science, I learned about planets and dinosaurs. I learned about the outermost planet, Pluto, and the giant saurischian, Brontosaurus.
Now, Pluto is no longer classed as a planet (but as a dwarf planet, along with Eris, Ceres, Haumea & Makemake) and the name Brontosaurus has been relegated to a curious historical footnote against Apatosaurus (whose skeleton body was once insulted by the wrong head and called a Brontosaurus).

In every field of human knowledge – from astronomy to zoology and from geology to sociology – we make progress when new knowledge challenges old ideas. Consequently, the wisest stance to adopt is scepticism: ‘a tendency to doubt’.

For project mangers, doubt is a valuable weapon in your professional arsenal.  Let’s look at some examples.

Project Planning and Doubt

Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman (whose wonderful book, ‘Thinking: Fast and Slow‘ I have recommended before) coined the term ‘Planning Fallacy‘ to describe the well-observed tendency to assume that the time things will take is pretty close to the best case scenario. I would add to that ‘Planning Delusion‘; a tendency to believe our plans will be a true reflection of events. They rarely will. Doubt is the key to proper planning and preparation – doubt your best case scenario and doubt your plan.

The only rule I think we can rely on here (and notice, I say ‘think’, connoting doubt) is ‘Hofstadter’s Law’:

‘It always takes longer than you expect;
even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.’

This was coined in his book ‘Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid‘.

Project Delivery and Doubt

When things go well, we fall into an optimistic bias that leads us to suspect that we are working on a special project that is an exception to Hofstadter’s Law. What rot. Healthy scepticism keeps your senses attuned to the problems, delays, and general foul-ups that are the very nature of life. The sooner you spot them, the simpler it tends to be to fix them, so the heightened awareness that doubt brings is the key to staying in control of your project.

Risk and Doubt

The nature of risk is uncertainty, so where can doubt be of more value? And there are different types of risk.

  • ‘Aleatory risks’ represent inherent uncertainty in the system – we cannot know where a ball will land when the roulette wheel spins.
  • ‘Epistemic risks’ arise uncertainty the uncertainty due to the gaps our knowledge.
  • ‘Ontological risks’ are those about which we are wholly unaware.

We therefore tend to believe that absence of evidence is evidence of absence – and are frequently wrong. Once again, doubt would prevent this mistake. For a summary of these kinds of risk, take a look at my simplified  ‘Four Types of Risk’ infographic.

Stakeholders and Doubt

I am working on my book on stakeholder engagement (publication spring 2014, Palgrave Macmillan) and spoke with a former colleague about his experiences – thank you Paul Mitchell. I loved his tip that:

‘just because they are quiet; it doesn’t mean they agree.’

Spot on – absence of evidence again.

Resistance and Doubt

When people resist our ideas our first instinct is to tackle that resistance – to take it on and aim to overcome it. Wrong! Step 1 is doubt: ‘what if they are right and I am wrong?’ It is a crazy notion, I know, but if it turns out to be true, doubt can save you a lot of wasted time and a possible loss of reputational capital.

Performance and Doubt

I attended an excellent one-day seminar on Positive Psychology in Organisations, led by the inspirational Sarah Lewis. One take away is the doubt we should apply to excellent performance. We tend to consider it to be ‘what we expect’ so we focus on fixing poor performance. One of the vital practices of the best and most flourishing organisations is to focus on this ‘positive deviance’ and work hard to understand and then replicate it.

Decisions and Doubt

Doubt frustrates decision making so it cannot be a good thing, can it? Well, yes, it can. Often, doubt arises from ‘gut instinct’. We know what the facts are telling us, but our intuition disagrees. Daniel Kahneman (yes, him again) will tell us that our instincts are fuelled by bias and faulty thinking, but another excellent thinker, Gary Klein (author of ‘The Power of Intuition’) reminds us that in domains where we have true and deep expertise, that intuition may be working on data we have not consciously processed. Doubt should lead us to look more deeply before committing to an important decision.

Time Management and Doubt

One of the reasons clients most value my time management seminars is that I don’t have a system. Which is good for them, because their people have numerous interruptions in their working day, meaning that any plan they draw up will be stymied by necessary reactions to events. I do advocate making a plan; but I also advocate reviewing it frequently. Sticking to an out of date plan, based on yesterday’s priorities is worse than having no plan at all. This is, of course, a cornerstone of good monitoring and control for us as project managers.

Stress and Doubt

Doubt causes stress, because doubt robs us of control. Is the solution, therefore to work hard to eliminate doubt? It could be in some circumstances, but the solution to removing stress is to regain control, and this need not require you to remove doubt, but to embrace it and make it part of your process. That way, you keep the value of doubt, but take control of how you apply it.

Wisdom and Doubt

Doubt and scepticism suffuse my whole concept of wisdom. It arises from the combination of perception – noticing new evidence – and evolution – altering your world view in accordance with your new knowledge. It features in conduct and judgement, and even in fairness. And what authority can you have, if you hold fast to old certainties in the face of new realities? For more about my concept of what wisdom is, and how to develop it as a professional, take a look at my book, Smart to Wise.

This article was first published in June 2013, in my monthly newsletter/tipsheet, ‘Thoughtscape’. Why not subscribe to my Thoughtscape newsletter?